Buying your first banjo
Published: 3rd December 2018 | Author: Joff Lowson
There are lots of things to consider when buying your first banjo. Cost is going to be important to most people and you can get a new banjo which will sound good and be easy to play for less than $300 if you look around. There are plenty of banjos in the $500-$700 range which are good enough for professional performance, but the best instruments cost several thousand dollars.
What to look for when buying a banjo?
It’s important to get a banjo which is easy to play. This depends on a lot of factors to do with how well it is made, how straight the neck is and whether the frets are properly dressed. The main thing to check out is the fretting action. You get different notes by pressing the strings against the frets, which are the small wires running across the fingerboard. It should be easy to get a clean sound on any fret and any string, without needing to press too hard with the fretting finger. The ‘Action’ is the distance between the strings and the frets, so a banjo with a low action is going to be easier to play than a banjo with a high action. Most players prefer a low action.
The banjo should also be in tune all the way up and down the neck, this is called the intonation. This depends on the position of the bridge. Guitars and some other stringed instruments have a fixed bridge, but the bridge on the banjo is movable so it is possible to adjust the intonation. This needs a skilled repairman to do it. Don’t leave the shop without the banjo being properly set up!
How many strings?
The five string banjo is the most popular, and also the easiest type for a beginner to play. There are over fifty free instruction videos to help you get started playing the five string banjo eight here on this website. If you want to play a four, six, or eight string banjo, good luck!
Closed or open back?
Some banjos have an open back. These are usually lighter and have a slightly quieter sound. Other banjos have a wooden bowl, called a ‘Resonator’ attached over the back of the drum. The resonator normally sits against your body while you are playing, so it can be more comfortable to play sitting down and helps to project the sound forwards. ‘Closed back’ or ‘Resonator’ type banjos are a bit louder and most Bluegrass players prefer them. Unfortunately they are quite heavy and it can be tiring to play them standing up. A lot of people say if you want to play Bluegrass, you must play a closed back banjo, but if you are a beginner, the most important thing is to be comfortable. For a lot of people, an open back banjo is going to be lighter to hold and more comfortable to play.
The ‘Scale length’ is the length of the string from the bridge to the nut. In other words, when you are not fretting the string, this is the total length of vibrating steel wire that is creating the sound. Banjos can have strings of different lengths, but always tuned to the same musical notes. If you think about taking a steel wire and stretching it tight to make a sound, there’s a lot of tension in there. So if you increase the length by just a half an inch, it’s going to make a big difference not only to the sound, but also how easy it is to play. A lot of professionals like to use long scale banjos around 26″ because of the improved sound, but they can be harder to play. For beginners I recommend looking at some shorter scale instruments like the Deering Goodtime.
To sum up
When buying your first banjo, make sure to get one that feels comfortable to hold and is easy to play. It needs to be properly set up and in tune all the way up the neck. Most music shops will give you good advice and try to be helpful, but the best thing is if you have a friend who knows a bit about banjos or guitars to check the playing action for you.